Gay Student's Relentless Struggle Pays Off
Silicon Valley De-Bug, Interview, G. Melesaine Posted: Jul 16, 2009
Editor’s Note: Last year, Silicon Valley De-Bug featured the struggle of a Vallejo student, Rochelle Hamilton, and her mother, Cheri, as they fought to end the harassment and discrimination faced by the then 15-year-old Rochelle because she was a lesbian. De-Bug’s G. Melesaine interviewed the pair last week after the American Civil Liberties Union announced that it had won a five-year battle against the Vallejo City Unified School District.
So tell me, what’s this journey been like for you?
Cheri: It has been long and painful. With the support from De-Bug and the ACLU, I felt I finally had people who understood our pain. I had to write many letters and make many phone calls, not allowing the district to run from this. Every issue Rochelle faced and every tear she dropped, I brought it to their attention.
Meanwhile, I held Rochelle, reminding her that nothing was wrong with her, that she was beautiful inside and out. As Rochelle asked me why the teachers wouldn’t stop, I reminded her what her father and I endured for being a black and white couple, and if we would have given in to a hateful society then she wouldn’t be here. As Rochelle listened, she realized that she also had to stand up for herself and others. I was not backing down and reminded the school administrators that my daughter has a right to be herself and receive an education in their district. While Rochelle grabbed her strength from me and as I counseled her through every putdown, she gained strength, and became a shoulder or a ear for LGBTQ (lesbian gay bisexual transgender queer) friends wanting to offer any support that they needed. It reminded her how important it was for her to continue the fight for change.
What were some of the unexpected hardships from this experience?
Cheri: Rochelle is going through the ongoing process to regain faith in her teachers. And she also lost a lot of school time, and is trying to make up her lost credits and finish school.
What was the school’s reaction to the case and to Rochelle? Were at least any of them sympathetic or apologetic to Rochelle?
Cheri: The school and the district chose to be sympathetic, but (they were) not willing to apologize. The settlement agreement speaks loudly. Rochelle and I have not focused on a pacified five-letter word “SORRY,” but rather we fought for a six-letter word: “CHANGE.” That was our goal, and we won what we really wanted, to make Vallejo a safer learning environment for all students.
Is there a message you have for other parents of gay teens who have to go through this and don't know what to do?
Cheri: Always have the will! You are your child’s voice! They are not heard unless you speak. Always be proud of your kids and remember how special they are. Smiles last forever in a mother’s heart. Listen to your kids and find out what is going on at their school, who their teachers are, and if your child is complaining, upset or withdrawn, find out why.
Rochelle, is there any message you have for the LGBTQ youth going through the same issues as you?
Rochelle: Don’t let anyone put you down and tell you that you can’t do or be what you want to be. It’s your life, live it how you want to and stand up for your rights.
What do you two plan on doing in the future?
Rochelle: Mom wants to help other parents of gay teens. I want to be a teen gay rights activist and help students with the coming out process so they are not alone and know that they are wanted and loved for who they are. I’m starting a Gay Straight Alliance at my new school next year. I want to eventually have my own TV show.
How does justice feel and what do you think about the change this will create for the LGBTQ community?
Rochelle: This is going to benefit Vallejo all the way around. Vallejo now will be a safe learning environment for its staff and students. Also we hope all of the surrounding districts will adopt the same training for their staff and students, recognizing how important it is to keep our kids safe and free from harassment. LGBTQ students now know that we care and that they have rights too. Just because you are LGBTQ does not mean you’re not American. We pay taxes too.
This interview will appear in the next issue of Silicon Valley De-Bug.
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